U.N. chief calls for immediate cease-fire

story.kofi.ap.gifThe secretary-general blamed Hezbollah for triggering the crisis and accused it of holding Lebanon hostage with its campaign against Israel.

“While Hezbollah’s actions are deplorable and, as I’ve said, Israel has a right to defend itself, the excessive use of force is to be condemned,” Annan told the U.N. Security Council.

Annan said that the continued bombardments and the destruction of roads and airports have made it impossible for U.N. and other humanitarian groups to provide services.

He said that arranging a cease-fire would be difficult, but he called for the council to take strong action.

“Both the deliberate targeting by Hezbollah of Israeli population centers with hundreds of indiscriminate weapons and Israel’s disproportionate use of force and collective punishment of the Lebanese people must stop,” Annan said.

The Lebanese people “have been brutally dragged back into war,” he said.

He also called for the release of the abducted Israeli troops and for Israel to allow humanitarian groups to reach civilians.

Israel has rejected calls for a cease-fire until it can push Hezbollah back from its northern frontier and retrieve the soldiers kidnapped in a cross-border raid July 12. That position is supported by the United States.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton has maintained that a cease-fire is a “simplistic” solution to the current problem between Israel and the Lebanese militia.

“As we’ve said repeatedly, what we seek is a long-term cessation of hostilities that is part of a comprehensive change in the region and a part of a real foundation for peace,” Bolton said. “But, still, no one has explained how you conduct the cease-fire with a group of terrorists.”

The United States and Israel consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The group, which has claimed responsibility for terrorist acts, also operates an extensive network of social services in Lebanon. Hezbollah also holds seats in the Lebanese parliament.

Rice to visit region

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to meet with Annan on Friday. She has said the U.S. would support a cease-fire in the conflict “when conditions are conducive to do so.”

Rice plans to travel to the region, possibly as early as next week, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters on Thursday.

Senior administration officials said more time is needed to shape the diplomacy and to create conditions on the ground for a permanent change of the situation — not merely a cease-fire. Israel needs time to “defang Hezbollah,” said one of the officials, who asked not to be named in light of the ongoing diplomacy.

Major strikes will end depending, in part, on when Israel believes the job is done, but one senior official said there could be “manageable differences” over determining when enough is enough.

The officials said some Israeli goals may not be achieved overnight or by military action.

Rice also plans to meet with European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana, who recently returned from the Mideast.

Annan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have called for an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon larger and stronger than UNIFIL, a long-established U.N. peacekeeping force already in the country.

Iran’s state-run news agency reported Wednesday that Lebanese President Emile Lahoud met with Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon Mohammad-Reza Sheybani and expressed thanks for Iranian support during the week-long Israeli air offensive in

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